America's Cup - December 2010

It was only last February, just a few days after BMW Oracle Racing won the America’s Cup when the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, handed the keys to the city to one of its most famous inhabitants, Larry Ellison. Ellison returned the favour by giving Newsom a team jacket. All seemed sweetness and light between the new holders of the America’s Cup and the city of San Francisco.

However, as I write, it’s just a fortnight until the deadline that BMW Oracle set itself for announcing the host city for the 34th America’s Cup, and no agreement is in place. Things have been getting heated between Ellison’s people and Newsom’s people, so the rumours go. Talk of any alternative to San Francisco ceased some time ago, so maybe the city feels in a position to play hardball with Ellison. Not a game that anyone would enter into lightly, as Ernesto Bertarelli knows only too well.

Meanwhile, back on the water, BMW Oracle has been acquitting itself nicely at the final Louis Vuitton Trophy event in Dubai. The team, skippered by James Spithill, dominated the early phases although went down to Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand 2-0 in the final. A nice way for Team New Zealand to conclude its love affair with the old America’s Cup keelboats. Unquestionably the Kiwis have been the dominant nation in America’s Cup racing over the past 20 years, but it will be interesting to see how much the shift to multihulls has an effect on shifting the global powerbase in sailing.

Much as it will please Barker to have beaten Spithill in some slow-boat match racing, Spithill is arguably the hotter property in America’s Cup right now. Unlike Barker and the vast majority of his rivals, Spithill has already served a two-year apprenticeship in learning to master large, superfast multihulls powered by solid wing sails.

It’s no surprise then to see that Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand have signed up to the Extreme 40 circuit next year, along with America’s Cup newcomers from Sweden, Artemis. BMW Oracle and Alinghi competed on this tour a couple of years ago when those teams were doing everything they could to cram invaluable multihull racing experience into the year before the 33rd America’s Cup. Now, once again, the Extreme 40 circuit finds itself perfectly placed to take advantage of the massive shift in the Cup world.

James Spithill on BMW Oracle
©  Gilles Martin-Raget / BMW ORACLE Racing

There were few things that Alinghi and BMW Oracle had in common, but they understood the value of investing in French offshore multihull racing expertise. For the past 20 years or more, the French have led the way in multihull development, and more than ever the French must fancy their chances at being able to win the America’s Cup on their own terms. This seems to be the way that Aleph - Equipe De France is thinking, a French syndicate which has recently been announced as the fifth team to officially enter the America’s Cup.

Headed up by match racing expert Bertrand Pacé, formerly of Emirates Team New Zealand and BMW Oracle, along with offshore legend Alain Gautier, this team is billing itself as an all-French effort. Very laudable to play the national card, but why would you? Why, when there is no nationality rule forcing you, would you make it even harder for yourself to win the most impregnable trophy in all of sailing? Perhaps, after the Kiwi dominance of keelboat racing, the French believe their time has come, now that it’s all about the multihull.

Personally, I can’t see it. What football team tries to win the Premier League with eleven English players on the pitch? When the rules of the America’s Cup permits you to recruit the most talented sailors in the world, why would you restrict yourself to one nation? If the French win the next America’s Cup, I’ll eat my hat.

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